“Three Walking Songs for the Night”: Everyday Magic, Day 1056

Going from winter (otherwise known as much of April) to summer (disguised as May this year) has plummeted many of us in Kansas into the high humidity of late summer, chiggers and thunderstorms and all. While determined to work outside on this porch as much as I can — ceiling and floor fans swirling and iced water flowing — I’m hot, sweaty, shaky, and a little stunned. It feels like those breezy spring days full of blossoms galore and chilled good sleeping weather have been climate-napped away. But then we live in and do well to acknowledge the extremes wrought by life and global warming.

No season leaves us without gifts, however, and lately, the mid-90’s day temperatures dissolve into those luscious summer nights that I also live for. Walking on deck or down the gravel drive each night (lesson learned from this weekend: don’t walk in the grass without protection because the ticks and chiggers are fierce), I’m reminded of how much I love strolling through summer nights. Like most things in language, a poem shows that better than I could explain, so I dug out a small set of poems I wrote some years ago over the course of many summer nights. This poem (along with many others) appears in my book, How Time Moves: New & Selected Poems.

Three Walking Songs for the Night

1.

I walk across a field. No more destination,

journey through or over water.

No more dreams of arriving.

I’m here, overlooking a small slope

that leads nowhere. Leaves drop out

of the wet branches. The field eats them.

A fox. Then the sky turns itself

like a clever hand this way and that,

blocking or letting through the moon.

Sometimes rain falls. No matter.

The animals come anyway.

When it clears, I lie on the fallen grass,

look at the brave sky,

and tell myself, “shut up and trust that.”

2.

When I wake in the dark, I will go to the forest

with no flashlight, and walk slowly, afraid,

letting my feet make out where next to step,

waiting for what’s hidden to let me into its hiding.

No longer dreaming of his hands cupping my head

tenderly, I will just walk in, feeling only

where to land, the noise of the running world no longer running,

the tree frogs cupping their motor song over

the motor song of the cicadas, the brush of branch

on branch, the owls a broken harmonic.

Oh, dream of being loved so perfectly,

Oh, dream of forgiveness,

Oh, damp moon in a pool of clouds,

wide stillness of nothing that we call sky,

now, please let me be brave enough.

3.

I was afraid most of that year.

No particular reason.

Just the rush of old air through my lungs

as if it had nothing better to do.

I’d wake a lot at night, puppy diving

after the kitten, the baby nightmaring

right into the center of my good dream.

I’d wake for nothing also,

sit up, climb out of bed, walking the house

to prove to myself there was no reason

to be afraid. I mean, look at that moon

carrying itself branch to tree branch.

Look at the indentations the wind makes

of its body in the grass.

See how round the earth is,

remember how many animals sleep

hidden like prayers in the tall grass.

See the open mouth of the sky, the shifting of stars

across the throat of the universe,

this time in its slot actually happening.

For the Love of Phil on the Day of the Dead: Everyday Magic, Day 1042

It’s not lost on me that it’s the Day of the Dead, when we remember and honor our departed beloveds (between Oct. 31-Nov. 2 this year). The veil is thinner during this time between worlds, dimensions, states of being, the spirit world and the world we seemingly inhabit. I’m thinking loud and often about a very recent departed dear one, Phil Brater, a phenomenal man who saved my life when I was a traumatized teen.

I was 15 when I met Phil, one of the leaders of the Temple Shaari Emeth youth group in Manalapan, New Jersey. The rabbi of our congregation, when I met with him at the urging of my father (freaked out that when he said he was suicidal, I said I was too) hooked me up with the youth group to give me more stability. It gave me much more: a sense of belonging, plus equal doses of sanity and humor, but most of all, it gave me Phil.

There’s an old Yiddish saying that we can survive anything if it’s part of a story, but to have a story really help us bring together the shards of our brokenness, we need someone to listen to it and help us see it in new lights and bigger perspectives. Phil was my witness, my confidant, my ad hoc therapist, and my spiritual advisor all in one.

In short order, Phil told me to come 30 minutes early each week to youth group so we could talk, and talk we did, usually sitting in a hallway, our backs leaning against the white-painted cinder block walls between kids’ classrooms. I would tell Phil of my parents’ long and damaging divorce, the price and pain of my rupture from most of my family, and what it was like living with a father who kicked or screamed at me most days. I shared what seemed like an endless well of sadness, insecurity, shame, and how I couldn’t see a way out of this.

Mostly he listened. Sometimes he held my hand or strategized with me about how to get through the next year, month, day. Always he told me that no child should have to go through what I was going through, caught in a maze of a mess so thick we could not see what to do to change things without exposing me to potentially more danger. But because of Phil, I had a way out I couldn’t see at time although I was desperate each week to sink to the ground in the dim hallway with him and start talking.

Having someone who truly verified each week that I wasn’t crazy, that things were indeed bad, and that I was strong, smart, and creative enough to survive this — even if believing that was a vast trick of suspended belief — helped me get strong, smart, and creative enough. He also praised whatever scrap of poetry I brought him and told me to keep writing no matter what, telling me that poetry was one of my best ways through all this.

Phil came by his genius for help and healing naturally, it seemed, and through his vocation as a guidance counselor at an all-girls’ school in New York City where most of the girls were navigating poverty, violence, and mental illness in themselves and their families. So he knew how to work with people like me and many others who were struggling, even in our middle-class suburban youth group. But mostly, he was innately gifted and inherently intelligent when it came to being wildly present with people in pain.

When I say “wildly,” I mean it. Phil (as well as his brother-in-law, who co-led the youth group) had a wicked sense of humor, and nothing was too disgusting or out of the pale for our youth group to fall out of our chairs laughing about. Phil also had a no-holds-barred high-pitched laugh and absolutely no self-consciousness about being himself. Through his fierce love of his wife and daughters, he also showed me what it meant to be a mensch and good family man.

Although we stayed in touch since that time through letters or phone calls, and occasionally a visit, I got to see him and actually co-present with him at the old temple in 2014. Fittingly, I was giving a reading from my novel, The Divorce Girl, a semi-autobiographical novel (the plot and some of the incidents were from my life but all the characters, including the main one — who was taller and smarter than me — were fictional). When I thanked Phil for all he did for me, then people started asking him questions as well as me, and soon he was standing next to me.

“How did you help her become a writer?” one person asked. Phil said, “You know, you just find out what someone is interested in and encourage them.” This was completely true, but the bigger story is that he showed me the power of telling our stories aloud and on the page.

Phil is the one who first shone the flashlight of good listening enough for me to see not just my way out but how writing and listening could be a way for others to find their own path. I credit him with helping me become a teacher and facilitator, and much of what I know of the power of such an encounter informed my development of Transformative Language Arts, a field that encourages people to make community and change through what we say and write.

When I hugged Phil goodbye seven years ago, I told him I would try to visit again. Although I very much wanted to, being so far away, then the distance magnified by the pandemic kept me of seeing him alive again. Another old temple pal let me know that he died October 27. I’m sad that he’s gone, and I especially wish his wonderful family all comforts and peace possible.

Phil’s life on this side of the veil is over, but my full circle time with him is so embedded in my heart that he will never be dead to me. And in case he can hear or read this (my idea of the afterlife would surely include a lot of reading), thank you, Phil, for getting me through the hardest three years of my life. Love in action like yours never dies.

10 Reasons to Come to Brave Voice: Everyday Magic, Day 1045

Kelley Hunt and my 16th annual six-day Brave Voice, Sept. 19-24 in Council Grove, Kansas. We have strong Covid protocols in place to keep everyone protected (all participants must show proof of vaccination, we’ll be spread out and will use masks for big group meetings), and the White Memorial Camp is also very committed to keeping us all healthy and safe. Everyone you need will be right at the camp too, including delicious, healthy meals (with vegan and vegetarian options).

Why should you join us at this retreat? Here’s some reasons:

  1. Magic: Yes, there is real magic, and it happens when you get a group of people who love to create — write, sing, make art, or just dip their toes into any of it — together in a sacred and relaxing place, mix in vast vistas of the lake and surrounding hills, add excellent food and deep sleep, and let everyone find their own best answers.
  2. Rest: There’s something about being away from home, surrounded by water and prairie, big skies and gentle breezes (with an occasional good rain) that makes for good sleeping weather. Plus, we hold open afternoons for people to create, wander, explore, collaborate, or take naps.
  3. Perspective: We all need to step out from the ordinary noise of our daily lives and see who we are now and what we have to say to ourselves and others from a new vantage point.
  4. Courage: Brave Voice is a courageous place where people are daring to create and listen to their hearts’ songs. Just being in that space give us back more of ourselves.
  5. Community: People make friendships, sometimes even for life, here. We witness each other, listen carefully, and find clarity and connection in community.
  6. Music: We sing, we’re sung to, we listen, we explore (no one has to sing alone or even sing at all), and oh, Kelley Hunt does a private concert for us!
  7. Writing: Writing is a way of knowing what’s true for us and what no longer holds water. In listening to each other, we find our way to our own strongest words and truest stories. I also do a private reading just for us.
  8. Surprises: The happy kind of surprises abound — maybe fresh pineapple or a new song (even if you’ve never written one), maybe a shooting star, a wonderful dream, or a double rainbow. Expect to be surprised in good ways.
  9. You: Coming to Brave Voice brings you home to yourself even more, and hey, don’t you need a great retreat right now?
  10. Flash Sale: We’re having a special sale to make Brave Voice more affordable for you right now — Aug. 18-22. Come visit our registration page here for the details of how to save close to $100.

Find out more at our website right here.